Saturday, January 13, 2007

Spitzer seeks to spread broadband to rural areas

Jay Gallagher The Ithica Journal

Eliot promised during his campaign he would focus in on upstate issues and take the necessary action to provide real help......broadband coverage is critical to bringing some upstate communities into the new "cyber age".......andy

ALBANY — In the 1920s and 1930s, virtually everyone in cities had access to electricity and telephones. But many rural Americans did not, until the government stepped in to provide incentives and regulations to spread utility service.
That's the situation many rural New Yorkers now find themselves in with the newest technology: lack of broadband Internet access, necessary for the high-speed computer connections
“This is a critical economic-development issue,” said Brian McMahon, executive director of the New York State Economic Development Council. “Broadband access isn't a luxury any more. It's an absolute requirement. You have to have this.” Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who has made reviving the Upstate economy one of the major goals of his new administration, sees spreading broadband access as a major tool to attract jobs to the region.
New York has 16.5 broadband lines per 100 people — a penetration rate in the middle of the nation's largest states, 10th highest of any state but just below the national average of 16.8 per 100 people, according to figures from the Federal Communications Commission.
There are now about 4.2 million broadband lines in New York, more than 1 million more than two years ago. Forty-four percent of New York homes now have broadband, according to state Public Service Commission figures.
But it is not available everywhere. While most parts of New York City and its suburbs, as well as the Hudson Valley, the Thruway Corridor and along much of the Route 17 corridor through the Southern Tier are wired, many rural areas are not.
“If you get 20-30 miles off those corridors access becomes an issue and a problem,” McMahon said.
The state is also way behind almost a dozen other countries, mostly on the Pacific Rim and in Western Europe, according to a Spitzer aide.
In his State of the State address this week, Spitzer said he's going to try to make broadband available across the whole state.
“Here in New York, we face a digital divide,” he said. “If you're a child growing up in South Korea, your Internet is 10 times faster at half the price than if you're a child growing up in the Southern Tier or in the South Bronx. New Yorkers on the wrong side of the divide simply cannot compete in today's economy.”
The state plans to first map where broadband is available, said Spitzer aide Drew Warshaw.
“We're going to take a look at where the dark zones are,” he said. Then on top of that map, they will put another one that locates state-owned and local-government-owned infrastructure.
He said the state will try to “leverage existing resources,” such as utility poles, rights of way and towers being built for a statewide emergency-response wireless network to try to strike deals with broadband providers to further extend their networks.
The plan is to bring together people from industry, labor, academia and not-for-profit institutions and direct ask them to come up with a solution.
“By the end of the first term, we want to be well on our way” to near-universal coverage, he said, referring to when Spitzer's term as governor expires in 2010. “If we're not there yet, there should be a clear road to get there.”
“This is not something New York has thought of in a comprehensive way before,” he said, adding that the cost would be “not astronomical” — less than $100 million.
Some counties aren't waiting for the state and have already embarked on their own projects to make broadband more widely available.
Ontario County, in the Finger Lakes region, is preparing to build a 180-mile, $7.5 million fiber-optic ring around the county, which is slated for completion in 2009.
“The philosophy behind this is we're building a piece of infrastructure, like building a road was in the last century,” said County Administrator Geoffrey Astles.
The idea is to bring the service to the more rural parts of the county by making it cheaper for the broadband companies to get their service there.
A key advantage the county has is it can repay the cost of building the ring over 20 years (with the proceeds from renting the wires in the ring) whereas telecom companies want to make their money back in just a few years, said county Economic Development Executive Director Mike Manikowski.

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